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Without robust product content, your eCommerce site is like a grocery store without any food on the shelves. You don’t want your customers to go hungry.

Gathering product data. Leveraging data feeds. Curating and organizing content in PIMs. Managing critical product details. A lot goes into handling product data effectively and preparing it for eCommerce. We’ve written some helpful tips for mastering product content here.

A few weeks ago, we hosted our second annual user conference, Engage. Mike Wentz, VP of Industry Alliances at Insite Software moderated a dynamic session about product content.  Todd Sisson, eCommerce Manager at Dakota Supply Group, Nate Wotruba, Director of IT Services at Amerhart and Denise Keating, Co-founder and CEO of DATAgility shared their perspectives on how distributors can obtain better product data, measure the quality of data and ensure it is eCommerce-ready.

Below, we’ll share some of the key highlights.

Feed the Hunger Product Content Session


How Distributors Can Get Better Data from their Manufacturers to Support eCommerce

One of the greatest product content challenges distributors face when it comes to building their product content strategy, is gathering all the data they need from their manufacturers. Many distributors are asking their manufacturers for product content directly, but Denise Keating says the conversation needs to get deeper.

“Typical conversations between manufacturers and distributors go something like this, ‘Hey Mr. Manufacturer, I need all your data so I can sell your stuff online, so we can serve our mutual customer.’ Sure, that’s a good initial conversation to have, but the conversation has to go much deeper than that. Plus, it needs to be a conversation between the right people within the organization,” said Keating.

Mike Wentz added that product content is all about manufacturers and distributors cooperating. When manufacturers can provide the content, and distributors can promote their products, there’s no better win-win than that.

But it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Manufacturers have their own set of challenges and hesitations when it comes to delivering product content.

Many manufacturers are hesitant to provide content because they’re not sure how content will be used. They’re also concerned about commoditization of their products.

“Vendors sometimes don’t fully understand what we need. But that conversation needs to be pushed forward and better enhanced by the right people. It can’t just be a branch manager or an eCommerce manager. It has to start at the top for that partnership to really go to where it needs to be,” said Todd Sisson.

If manufacturers are worried about commoditization and distributors want more product data, how do they find common ground? The trick is making a distinction in your content strategy conversations. There’s a huge difference between normalizing data and commoditizing products.

If manufacturers are being asked to provide product attributes like color, size, volts, amps, material, etc. then that information ends up on the eCommerce site, individuals can simply compare attributes.  That can be seen as commoditization. But manufacturers have additional features and benefits that make their products unique. Thus, manufacturers have to ensure they are providing the content that uniquely identifies their products out in the marketplace. Then they need to help people understand how and where that data is being used.

Some manufacturers don’t have a web presence, content, pictures, or even descriptions of their products. As a distributor, when you can’t get all the data you need from manufacturers, you may have to look elsewhere.

Nate Wotruba from Amerhart, an independently owned lumber and building materials distributor, for example says Amerhart produces 20% of the content themselves, 20% comes from their suppliers and around 60% comes from a third party.

Todd Sisson from Dakota Supply Group (DSG), an HVAC, electrical, plumbing, automation and waterworks distributor, said DSG has struggled with the content gap as well. They couldn’t find a single provider or source that was able to feed their needs for data. So they rely on multiple sources including the IDW and AD feeds. In addition, they also rely on Bravo Media and DDS. When DSG launched their eCommerce site they had product content for more than 48,000 SKUs.

“The important part for us is the customer experience. We want it to be faster, simpler and easier for our customers to interact with DSG. That means we need to have content that they can trust. A single wrong image can create distrust. We have a ways to go but we have a pretty solid foundational data strategy and we’re happy with the progress we’ve made,” said Sisson.

He spoke about the challenges DSG faces within different verticals like electrical, plumbing and HVAC. Every salesman from every vertical wants their product to be perfect. But when your business is built on relationships, you can work with your vendors to build better experiences.

“One of the great things about being in business for over 100 years is that we have great relationships with vendors. They want to do business with us as a distributor, because we provide value outside of a digital chain. We have sales reps that understand their products and want to sell their products, but just need a little bit of help,” said Sisson.

Could the secret to better product content come down to fostering relationships? Perhaps.

Quality of Your Data Matters

Preparing products for eCommerce is a big task. There’s a reason why many companies dedicate entire teams to product content. The quality of your data matters. Some industries, like the electrical industry have created data standards to measure data quality.

In the electrical industry, manufacturers and distributors collaborated to build a standard that includes 43 critical fields that every manufacturer is measured against. Denise Keating shared that you have to define what you mean by quality data in order to obtain it.

Here are some characteristics of high quality data, according to Keating:

  • Accurate
  • Timely
  • Complete
  • Consistent
  • Synchronized internally and externally
  • Easy to use
  • Used in the right context

At the end of the day, manufacturers need to understand what their channel partners need. As a distributor, you have to be as specific as possible about the data you’re looking for from your manufacturer. Don’t just ask for “images.” If you need images on a white background at a high resolution with front, back and side views, ask for that. Get specific. You have to engage your partners in the product content strategy discussion so they understand what you need and can construct the data in way that you can leverage it.

“Data is not a project, it’s a process. Take the electrical industry for example. The 43 standard fields were very relevant when they were introduced. But there have been new requirements since that time. You need a process in place that allows you to be agile and respond to the new conditions that are taking place,” said Keating.

Many distributors represent 50, 100, 200 or more different manufacturers. Distributors want to present a catalog that looks uniform and consistent but that becomes difficult when so many manufacturers have to provide the content and the data doesn’t have consistent details. Distributors’ customers want, and expect, to see a consistent interface with complete product content. Therefore, after you receive the product data, you may need to work to normalize and standardize it.

Take Amerhart and Dakota Supply Group for example, both have strategies around cleaning and standardizing their data before it hits the site.

“There’s a balance between quality data, accurate data and needing to see ROI out of our eCommerce investment. So we needed to get some products up on the site in order to sell things. That was a huge lesson learned on our side. Perfect is great, but perfect is not necessarily attainable. Getting data through the system, starting small and getting feedback was important for us,” said Nate Wotruba.

Managing data quality becomes easier when you have a team (or partner) to help you do so. Amerhart, for example has their own product gatekeeper. She is responsible for ensuring the data meets the standards before it ever gets to their PIM. She works with their product managers to review and approve that data. Then before it’s ever pushed to the site, she reviews it again to ensure attributes and spec templates are complete and setup properly.

Whether you’re just starting out with eCommerce or you’ve been at this for years, taking time to formulate your product content strategy is vital. Determine what the must have’s are, and what content is nice to have. Then work through a plan to gather, clean and normalize the data. Work with manufacturers and content feed providers to identify what you need to power your eCommerce platform. Finally, build out a plan for continuous improvement.

Getting your arm around product content may seem like a daunting task. Don’t panic. Get a plan in place, reach out to others for advice, and continually iterate. You’ll get there in no time.

And remember, if eCommerce is the engine, product content is the fuel!

Product Content Lessons Learned

“It’s a long journey. I assumed that people understood product and item relationships. In reality, it was a bit of a foreign concept. Defining attributes and defining characteristics were big overhauls. Beyond that though, we had a culture change. Even though it’s a bit of a cliché term, we experienced digital transformation. We are truly going through major changes. People are understanding the value that digital can provide not only to our customers but to them as resources. Patience, patience, patience.” – Nate Wotruba

“For us I think one of the biggest lessons was to bring this into both the sales and marketing organizations. Know thy customer, know your user, know what they need. This solution has been more customer driven and customer focused than it was previously. So if you haven’t gotten support from the sales or marketing side of your business, get them involved early, often and know the customer, know the user.” -Todd Sisson